Berlin 2023

Tótem review – family faces mortality in a devastating, nuanced drama

Mexican director Lila Avilés' second feature finds generous shades of grey in its exploration of the ways we process death

Much of Tótem is shot in a delicate, naturalistic style, prioritising hand-held long takes, often holding characters up close for the duration of a shot. It’s a style that largely emerged in European arthouse cinema in the eternal search for realism, but which has gradually come to dominate large portions of arthouse and festival-focused films the world over. The style, I think, has a tendency to conflate realism with truthfulness, making the assumption that simply staging a scene with a naturalistic bent will import weight and meaning. In the worst hands, it builds towards voyeuristic melodrama, placing characters under a magnifying glass until they explode with the pressure (the Dardennes being particularly criminal in this regard).

Of course, what matters is not the aesthetic per se, but to what ends such techniques are used. Mexican director Lila Avilés' second feature – following 2018's The Chambermaid – may have European co-production funds on board, and may be distinctly reminiscent of this approach, risking framing a Mexican story through a style palatable to European eyes (already a saturated market on the European festival circuit). But thankfully, this is a firmly-told and confident work, the result of a director, cast and crew with a clear vision that speaks to their reality.

We are introduced to Sol (Naíma Sentíes), a pre-adolescent girl, as she’s dropped off at the family home. We soon glean that it is her father Tona’s (Mateo García Elizondo) birthday, though as we see him having to be helped to his feet by a nurse and requiring round-the-clock care, we realise he’s dying of cancer. The film then becomes about the preparation for this family gathering, which doubles as a celebration and a wake. Sol is just about at the age where she’s beginning to understand the gravity of mortality. The adults around her try to grin and bear it, but it’s impossible to ignore.

Where lesser directors would ramp up the melodrama of the situation, using the realist film language to build an ersatz verisimilitude, Avilés finds ways to avert her gaze just gently enough to provide a certain level of levity. Tona, for example, is only rarely seen, and even then he's often shrouded in darkness – at least until he emerges for the party. Yet the more mundane foibles of his sisters – one obsessing over cake decorations and the other introduced bringing a spiritual healer to the house who clearly exaggerates the problem for a bigger payout – are more central concerns, at least at first. The grandfather, an ageing therapist who speaks with an electrolarynx (a device for people who’ve had their larynx removed through surgery) becomes a figure of absurdity, clearly happy to let the women do the bulk of the work whilst giving himself an air of self-importance.

The purpose is not to turn these characters into the butt of jokes, but to depict how, even when faced with great sadness, we often waste our energies on small and pointless distractions. Avilés’ writing is sharp and nuanced, with each character in the extended family rendered in generous shades of grey. It results in a final scene that is unexpectedly devastating, held close on Sol’s young face, buried in thought and melancholy.

Tótem was screened as part of the Berlinale Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

Where to watch

More Reviews...

The Five Devils review – haunting sapphic drama of secrets and silences

Writer-director Léa Mysius seamlessly blends the natural and the supernatural in this tragic love story starring Adèle Exarchopoulos

The Cow Who Sang a Song Into the Future review – magical realist fable climbs to a superb peak

Though it takes a while to find the right groove, this debut from Chilean director Francisca Alegrí locates some spectacular images

The Beasts review – tense, terrifying drama of xenophobia in the Spanish countryside

A French couple clash violently with the locals in this fascinating, though slightly sagging, new film from director Rodrigo Sorogoyen

Shazam! Fury of the Gods review – DC sequel makes an uncompelling case for its own existence

Though there are a few nice ideas, this follow-up to the surprisingly good 2019 original is bogged down by the genre's worst instincts


Repertory Rundown: What to Watch in London This Week, From Fellini to Fritz Lang

From classics to cult favourites, our team highlight some of the best one-off screenings and re-releases showing this week in the capital

Best of the Fest: 12 Essential Films From Berlin 2023

We've gathered up our most glowing reviews from this year's festival, from dynamic documentaries to dizzying debuts

A Woman Talking: Trusting the Process in the Work of Sarah Polley

To coincide with the release of Women Talking, Anna McKibbin explores the ethos behind the films of the acclaimed director

Every M. Night Shyamalan Film, Ranked

Overrated hack or underrated auteur? Fedor Tot explores the twisty filmmaker's output to mark the release of Knock at the Cabin